Papaya Salad

We've spent the last week or so in Luang Prabang doing a whole lot of nothing. We've met some people, gone bowling a few times, and nursed a couple of Beer Lao hangovers. We've read alot, eaten four times at an Indian restaurant, and generally passed our days ambling around the small town drinking fruit shakes and eating Laughing Cow cheese baguettes.

We've also discovered papaya salad. This stuff packs a heavy punch. Papaya shavings are pounded in a huge pestle and mortar along with birds eye chillies, cherry tomatoes, mini aubergines and something loosely translated into English as "hot plums." Citrus juice, salt, sugar and prawn paste are then added and tested to create a precise balance of flavours. The salad also comes with a side plate of cabbage and some other vegetables of weird and wonderful provenance.

I've been accused of wolfing down my food at times, but in papaya salad I've met my match. The hot, sour, sweet, fermented combination is simply too much to tackle full bore. Luckily, however, the crunchy, fresh papaya, and side plate of veg work as the perfect foils to this assault on the senses. With a steady, measured approach, the flavours unfold like oil in a puddle.

I can see why the vendor found it necessary to taste each batch as she went along. Without careful balancing this type of thing could seriously blow up in your face. The chili, citrus and prawn paste were all combustible flavours that both complemented each other and wrestled for control of the taste buds.

This was Laos food done for Laos people and made absolutely no concessions to the western palate. I think I'll wait a while before tackling another papaya salad - I need some time to let my mouth acclimatise!